Very Sophisticated Idiots (The War Machines)


We're functioning automatic, and we are dancing mechanic.
It's June 25, 1966. The Beatles are at number one with "Paperback Writer," and will trade it to The Kinks in two week's time. The remainder of the charts display a fairly standard blend of irritating traditionalism and pleasant edginess as it proceeds towards a more contemporary style. In the news, not a lot happens - some shuffles of foreign leaders, France leaving NATO, and the Vietnam war gets worse and worse. Oh, and the 1966 World Cup started five days before the finale of this story. But it's not like that had any influence on British culture of the time.

Meanwhile, on television, the Doctor fights a renegade computer that's controlling people's minds out of Post Office Tower. So I guess the odds were fairly high after all, and we're going to have to talk more about Quatermass.

Much of the point of taking The Quatermass Excursion on Monday was to make sure it was clear just how bizarre this story is in the context. As much as Doctor Who has felt a bit all over the map since Verity Lambert left (but never with the supreme confidence with which Lambert's Doctor Who simply assumed it could get away with whatever it tried - since then it's been desperately trying to find what it's good at, lacking as it does now Lambert's capacity to make it good at anything), the amount which it has changed in a year is staggering. More or less exactly a year ago today, the show was wrapping up The Chase and saying goodbye to Ian and Barbara. To get from there to The Daleks' Master Plan is staggering enough. To get from there through that, through The Massacre, through The Celestial Toymaker, and out to this... I mean, however bizarre the jump from The Sensorites to The Chase is, it's nothing compared to the gap from The Chase to this.

But what, exactly, is different? Hartnell has changed, certainly, with his acting painfully deteriorating over the course of the season. The bigger change can be seen in the companions. A year ago, we had Ian and Barbara - the two ordinary humans - and Vicki, who, while not an ordinary human, fulfilled the promise of the first episode better than Susan ever did - she was very much An Unearthly Child, visibly from our world, but clearly an avatar of its future. The rapid shedding of this entire companion team in favor of Steven, the featureless chameleon and Dodo, the one where they forgot to have a concept for the character, marks a major change. With Ian and Barbara we could see mundane life in extraordinary people. With Vicki we could see a clear vision of the future. With Steven we have an effective character for plot resolution, and with Dodo we have... well... something very good at being kidnapped. We've gone from companions that set the tone of the show to companions that advance the plot well.

Which captures the heart of the change. Under Lambert the show was meant to be educational, or, at the very least, fascinating. Under Innes Lloyd, the show has increasingly morphed to where it aspires first towards being exciting, and only secondarily towards being interesting. And so where Lambert would never have tried a story like this, set in a contemporary London we are meant to recognize as our own, it's the obvious choice for Lloyd. If you want to have an action-packed thriller, why set it on Vortis or the Sense Sphere when you can set it in your backyard?

But even with all of that, there's something shocking about the change of tone here. It's not just that this is the first time a story has felt like unadulterated Innes Lloyd. The Celestial Toymaker was as much a John Wiles story as an Innes Lloyd one, The Gunfighters was all Lloyd in execution, but still a Donald Cotton script, and Cotton was from the previous era. The Savages felt like an older story. And here, suddenly, from the same writer as The Savages, we have a story that is like nothing we've seen on Doctor Who before. The only reason this looks even remotely familiar is that many of the things it's doing for the first time are things that the show will keep doing for the next eight years.

This isn't a new problem for us - since the show started, we've been caught between what we see on the screen and what we know we're going to see. To take just one example, the Problem of Susan is visible because we know about the 47 subsequent years of vaguely problematic relationships between the Doctor and young girls, and we know that when the inevitable return of the Time Lords happens, the first thing we'll be looking for is a young girl that can wrap up some of the teased plot threads about the Doctor's family. But even if we see both ends of the Susan issue, we can at least easily tell which end is which.

But here we've got a real problem. Watched from one end, we know all the set pieces of this - the bizarre "Doctor Who is required" scene in which WOTAN decides on the importance of kidnapping the Doctor and sets off a thousand retcons as to why he flubs the name, the introduction of Ben and Polly, the ludicrously poorly done departure of Dodo, the central London stuff, etc. And we can fit them into our knowledge of Doctor Who and get it all to make sense, ignoring the fact that, taken as the culmination of three seasons of the show, this makes no sense whatsoever.

From the perspective of the show as it develops, this seems like it could be almost any show except for Doctor Who. The Quatermass connections are obvious - the entire world goes from business as usual to nearly doomed in a single day. And although the problem is purely man-made, WOTAN is not an evil computer in the sense of War Games. Where WOPR is mis-programmed, WOTAN is actually said to be able to think for itself. WOPR misunderstands the situation he is in, while WOTAN actually understands it perfectly and just honestly wants humanity to die. In this regard, WOTAN is, while man-made, strikingly alien - in fact, the nearest analogue to WOTAN that we've seen thus far is probably the Animus, a similarly impersonal entity. The result is a very Quatermass feel - a hostile and impersonal Other threatens the whole of humanity with extinction, and we see a government-bureaucrat's eye view of saving the world.

But unlike Quatermass, there's no sense of mystery or discovery here. Come the end of the first episode, we know pretty much everything about the situation and the dangers, whereas the end of the first episode of a Quatermass serial tends to be the confirmation that there's danger in the first place. In this regard, the story matches more closely with The Avengers, which we'll talk about soon enough - a straight action/adventure series set in contemporary England. And those are just the two big ones - Wood and Miles in About Time (available from finer Amazon Associates banners everywhere) identify a good half-dozen more in their write-up of the episode. And on top of that we have Doctor Who - you know, the show we're actually watching.

The question is, how did audiences at the time take it? It's tough to tell, this being the 60s. The Appreciation Index started at 49% - decent but a bit low for the series in its third season - and careened down to a 39% - pretty dismal. By that measure, this story was distinctly less popular than either The Savages before it or The Smugglers after it. On the other hand, Innes Lloyd was not a stupid man, just a populist one, and he clearly decided that, AI or no AI, he was going to keep working in this vein. (Indeed, if you want to completely throw into chaos the received wisdom on The Gunfighters, try to explain based on AI figures why that was supposedly the excuse to cancel the historical as a genre while this was the show's standard operating procedure for seasons 4-11.)

The fact of the matter is, it's tough to come up with a compelling reason why someone who had really enjoyed Doctor Who up to this point would watch this. In every regard, it feels like a complete departure. That's not unusual - we've had oddball stories before. The Celestial Toymaker springs to mind most readily. But before when we did a complete departure from everything we've ever seen, we got back to things that felt like Doctor Who shortly thereafter. That's not going to happen here. On the other hand, Doctor Who as we know it isn't quite dead yet. The Savages may have been the last traditional Hartnell story, but the transitory period is going to last a few stories.

So let's put the future aside, at least for another few stories, and try to clear the grime off our 20/20 hindsight to watch this thing. The first thing that's clear is that this is not merely set in contemporary London, it's full-out embracing contemporary London. Its initial establishing shot screams London, and almost as soon as the Doctor lands, we get a shot of Post Office Tower, which had just opened when the episode aired. This is a complete inversion of Ian and Barbara, as I've said - suddenly instead of seeing the familiar taken into strange places, we see the Doctor, the avatar of strangeness, land in the middle of London and confidently declare that something evil is going on here.

We also get a new kind of threat - WOTAN, the evil computer. Again, I've already talked about his otherworldliness. More broadly, it should be noted that WOTAN is one of the elements of this story that it is hardest to watch now. The fact of the matter is, WOTAN does not work anything like a computer written in the 21st century would. But the thing is, as easy as it is to laugh at the Doctor's lengthy explanation that the problem with these evil robotic tanks is that they've been incompletely programmed, and as comical as dialogue about how WOTAN is going to be given control of all other computer systems in the world... we're still talking about computer plotting that is as sophisticated as that of Live Free or Die Hard or The Net. (Those are both Amazon Affiliates links if you're the sort of bewildering masochist who likes badly written Internet thrillers and somehow don't own these "classics," but I suppose I have to here give up all pretense of recommending what I link to. But since one of you randomly picked up Tron while trawling through Amazon off one of my links, I can only assume there's a market for bad computer movies among you nuts.) Yes, "as sophisticated as Live Free or Die Hard" is not a statement that you generally want to aspire towards, but given that this was 1966, the goal is perhaps more ambitious than it sounds.

(I should add a parenthetical here for the reader I know will care, yes, WOTAN is named after the Norse Odin, and the link is made even more explicit when the War Machines themselves are called Valkyries in the novelization. Unfortunately, there ends the fascinating Norse interpretation of this story, as it's pretty clear the only thing this is supposed to signify is the vaguely Nazi tone of the whole thing. Those looking for an epic confrontation between the Doctor and the Norse pantheon are just going to have to wait until 1989.)

Then there's Ben and Polly - numbers nine and ten in the official list of companions. As I already said, companions are one of the areas the show has been a mixed bag over the last year. The fact of the matter is that Ian and Barbara were such strong characters that they have proven difficult to replace. And, actually, so has Vicki, going through three replacements, although to be fair, two were always planned to be killed off. So I'm pretty pleased to say we have a pair of pretty good characters here. Steven was never a problem as a replacement for Ian, and Ben slots into that role pretty well, but he adds an edge to it. He's the show's first proper working class character, and the class issues become visible in this story, with upper class aristocrats dismissing him as "boy" and the like on an alarmingly regular basis. He's paired with Polly, who even while spending half the story under WOTAN's mind control is magnetically charismatic in a way we have not seen in a companion yet.

The result is something that fulfilled its behind-the-scenes brief - a pair of companions that exemplify contemporary British youth culture. And it's no accident that the first place Polly takes the show is the Inferno nightclub, a tamed for TV but still recognizable version of a mod hangout. As soon as we see Ben, Polly, and Inferno, it becomes clearer than ever how inadequate of a companion Dodo is. Although she's ostensibly from this culture, she doesn't fit in at all, to the point where it's not her monotone delivery of the explanation that she went and hung out with some friends so much as it is the idea that she has friends and a life here that is the tip-off that she's being mind controlled. And so about halfway through episode two Dodo is left unconscious on a couch to sleep off the hypnosis, her last scenes being some bizarre closeups of her being deprogrammed by the Doctor at his most strikingly alien. Goodbye, Ms. Chaplet. Sorry things didn't work out.

From that point on, the story is basically wall to wall action setpieces, including a truly fantastic sequence in which a comedy homeless guy is ultimately turned on and murdered by WOTAN's brainwashed servants, and an even better sequence in which the Doctor, who admittedly spends most of this story seeming out of sorts, with Hartnell's acting reaching a new low, stares down an oncoming War Machine in a monster's eye shot that serves as the episode three cliffhanger. This is a cliffhanger in the classic Doctor Who style. The tension is not "How is the Doctor going to survive facing down this awful machine," but "Oh man, what's he going to do to the machine?" The anticipation is not based on the Doctor being in danger, but on not getting to see him kick the machine's ass.

Unfortunately, that's about the only good bit Hartnell has this episode. It's tough to say why that is. Certainly the actor's health was in freefall at this point, and the fact that the production team very clearly wanted him to quit can't have made the on set atmosphere very cheery. But perhaps more importantly, Hartnell's style of playing the Doctor just isn't well-suited to the thriller genre. Technobabble has always been Hartnell's achilles heel, so having him be the knowledgeable consultant to a bunch of men with guns is a rough proposition - he can't do very well getting physically involved with the action, and he can't do very well explaining the science.

In fact, if you look at Hartnell's best scenes from about The Myth Makers on, they are all when he is just going one-on-one with a quality actor. He's the only one who looks like he enjoys The Celestial Toymaker, in no small part because he gets to do scenes with Michael Gough and not worry about the rest. His comedy bits in The Gunfighters are gold, his best bits in The Savages are when he's just chatting with Jano. A story in which there's nobody for him to chinwag with is not playing to his strengths. And this, more than anything, is where I think he falls flat in this story. His problem isn't that he's too ill to play the part - his energy level is pretty high through most of this story. It's that this just isn't the part he signed up for.

Which is perhaps the largest reason why, paring the future context away from this story, it looks like a bit of a dud. All the moving parts are there, and the story seems fascinating and exciting. But it's not a story that seems like the Doctor fits in it. So unless the show plans on doing something completely crazy like recasting the main character and heavily altering his personality, the fact of the matter is, this story is as much of a failed experiment as The Celestial Toymaker.

Do you own The War Machines on DVD yet? If not, consider buying it from Amazon via this link so that I get a slight kickback.


Gavin 9 years, 9 months ago

Not so much set in contemporary London as contemporary! London! As distinct from e.g. The Quatermass Experiment, which in its handling of marriage actually is contemporary drama.* (In a way that Doctor Who naturally couldn't be.)

*I mean the original television series, not the film, obviously.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 9 months ago

Yeah, the marriage plot in The Quatermass Experiment is excellent, and I'd have readily mentioned it if it fit anywhere in the entry there.

You are also, of course, right that London in The War Machines is heavily stylized - less London than the idea of London. But on the other hand, for most of the British population the two were interchangeable. Ben and Polly were not recognizable as people everyone knew - certainly not in the same way that Ian and Barbara were sort of universalizable schoolteachers. Rather, they were recognizable as people everyone saw on TV.

The next few entries will look more at exactly what this turn towards the "contemporary" means, since it's intensely relevant to virtually everything save for The Smugglers and The Underwater Menace in Season 4.

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steedstylin 6 years, 10 months ago

Dear Phil,

I have just finished reading the First Doctor Tardis Eruditorum, and it is wonderful. Thank you so much for publishing your essays, and in such beautifully designed books, too. Your essays are fun, original, and insightful, and I wish I had a friend with whom to talk about Doctor Who in this literary theory manner!

The manner in which you trace the change in the tone of the show such that Hartnell becomes increasingly marginalised and frankly requiring replacement is of particular interest to me.

Before I go on, I'd just like to put to one side the fact that William Hartnell's health was waning and that this was perhaps the major contributing cause to the change in the lead for the purposes of this hypothetical question.

I am not sure whether I fully understand the reasons you give for why the character of the Doctor, as played by Hartnell, finds himself, particularly with this story, as too marginalised and unsuitable as to be able to continue in the role by virtue of the fact that it is too different a character as the one we saw as part of the original motley in the first two seasons.

I see the character, as played by Hartnell, here sparkling, and the 'spritely' tag seems perfectly apt for the depiction of the Doctor in this serial, from the hairs standing on the back of his hands enough of a reason to warrant storming into the heart of the new Tower through his conversations with the scientific establishment and Ministry officials, making himself perfectly at home in the TV-friendly Inferno club, and absolutely and believably majestic as the man who stares down a War Machine in Episode 3 before dismantling it in Episode 4 in Covent Garden. In short, I buy it.

In keeping with the pattern of the show as begun here and evidenced throughout its history, we have also seen the tone and direction change mid-stream, including, it must be said, mid-Doctor.

Isn't that all that's happening here? Well, no, given the health issues, but returning to the remits of this hypothetical I asked to be suffered above and putting William Hartnell's health aside, couldn't this character have been as much of a success in any further proto-UNIT stories and Base Under Siege narratives we see in Troughton's years, or in any 'Missing Adventure' set before "The Tenth Planet"?

I concur that the original Newman brief is by now long-gone, and that the new production team were looking ahead to and actively wanting a post-Hartnell era, but does that necessarily mean that this hypothetical is entirely impossible?

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aderack 5 years, 8 months ago

If you attend closely, pretty much the only way that WOTAN could know a thing about the Doctor is from scanning Dodo's mind, as we know that he does. So if you wonder why his knowledge of the Doctor is a bit wonky -- well, consider its probable source.

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ladysugarquill 3 years, 6 months ago

I cannot disagree more with your thoughts on Hartnell's acting. He's been brilliant 90% of the time, and he's amazing here.

Curiously, I watched (or maybe re-watched) this serial shortly after The Caretaker, and the moment the Doctor calmly walk towards the machines while everybody else is running away, all I could think of were Danny Pink's words: He’s an officer.

He's clearly shed the bumbling old man act for the body language of the guy who may or may not have been running away from a war, as per the original concept's notes seen in Doctor Who: The Vault.

Or maybe I just love military serials.

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